There is no hiding place for the SDLP…

Liam Clarke with a description of the SDLP’s predicament that resembles that guy who recently followed his sat nav and took his truck down a forest footpath only to get horribly stuck… In favour of McDonnell:

“What we need is a bruiser and an organiser. Alasdair fits the bill on both,” one supporter said, pointing also to his thick skin, his pragmatic attitude and an ability to weather personal attacks from opponents.

The bruiser part has a downside, however. McDonnell, known as Big Al, has an outgoing personality and can charm voters. But within the party he can be brusque with subordinates and frank to the point of rudeness.

People who built power bases under Durkan see McDonnell as a tough and none-too-diplomatic taskmaster, who would follow his own hunches and upset the internal fiefdom of anyone who got in his way.

And Ritchie:

Ritchie, 51, is popular for fighting her corner against the DUP and Sinn Fein in the executive. She refused public money to community groups with links to the UDA, which led to a showdown with Peter Robinson and the move was subsequently overturned in the courts. She successfully faced down the DUP over cuts in her housing budget and has won the support of Sir Reg Empey, the Ulster Unionist leader, in most of her tussles within the executive.

Besides Hanna, Ritchie’s key supporters include Dolores Kelly, an MLA in Upper Bann, and Alex Attwood, the SDLP’s sole MLA in West Belfast. She is generally seen as the leadership choice, a steady-as-she-goes candidate with pluck and ability. People use words like “honest”, “sincere” and “determined” to describe her. On the debit side, she is seen as having “a glass jaw” when it comes to taking criticism. Critics say ‘Wee Maggie’ takes offence readily and is too easily needled by Sinn Fein. Questions are being asked over how she would react to the pressures of leading the SDLP through its present crisis, especially if she remains a minister.

But underlying it all is the deeply uncompetitive nature of a party whose voters have been staying home in their tens of thousands… ceding much of the available political capital in the next political generation to their rivals in Sinn Fein. The conditioning situation which underlies the party’s current defensiveness in South Down:

McGrady, who has been 22 years in parliament, has announced his intention of standing in the next Westminster election. He told his local paper he is looking forward to the next two decades.

Some McDonnell supporters don’t see the joke, however, and believe he should have stood aside to let Ritchie contest the seat. There are even criticisms of Durkan for not putting pressure on McGrady to hand over before his majority is eroded.

Whoever wins faces a challenge to keep the SDLP together. The fact that Durkan, 49, is the party’s youngest MLA says it all. He had been expected to lead for longer and will be replaced by an older candidate.


  • slug

    Alasdair looks the better option to an outsider-he is a calm and intelligent TV performer. However I don’t have a feel for the issue of his “divisive character” or what this means.

  • Billy

    Frankly, I don’t think much of either of them and this shows the paucity of talent (and membership) in the SDLP.

    However, at least Ritchie is consistent in her approach.

    McDonnell broke with his own party in order to take the Deputy Mayor position in Belfast at a time when Unionist discrimination on Belfast City council was blatent.

    His arrogance is all too apparent and his past behaviour shows that he’s more interested in looking after himself than in the interests of the SDLP.

    I haven’t had much time for the SDLP since John Hume and Seamus Mallon called it a day.

    However, I think it would be better for them if Ritchie wins. McDonnell will simply antagonise a lot of Nationalists who will either not vote or vote for Sinn Fein rather than support him.

    Either way, it’s a poison chalice as the SDLP is rapidly fading into oblivion and I can’t see any prospect of that turning around.

  • slug


    Thing is that McDonnell seems like a winner. The young family. The first nationalist deputy mayor and first to win South Belfast. Sounds like he will fight this one very determinedly with a lot of meetings.

    He’s also a clear BREAK from the Hume-Durkan trajectory, which has clearly run out of steam. I would expect him to be more imaginative with his approach and you wouldn’t get more of the same.

  • Billy


    Fair enough, he won South Belfast (against a split Unionist vote).

    However, I don’t think he has any credit in the Nationalist community (even many SDLP) voters for being the first Nationalist deputy mayor.

    Remember, at that time, Unionists on Belfast City Council were found guilty of breaking the law in order to deprive Catholics/Nationalists of their legal entitlements.

    They wasted hundreds of thousand of pounds (of taxpayers money) in legal fees defending this blatent discrimination and in paying the costs when they lost.

    They also claimed to be outraged at Alex Maskey being elected but were quite happy to work with representatives of the UVF/UDA and elect them to positions of power – blatent sectarian hypocrisy.

    These were the people that McDonnell did a deal with – please correct me if I’m wrong but I’m pretty sure that even the SDLP were outraged at his blatent self-serving hypocrisy and disciplined him.

    Like I said, I am convinced that the SDLP are dying off. Frankly, even with the difficulties SF have had in recent months, the SDLP have made no inroads into their domination – if anything they’ve gone backwards.

    I’m not sure any leader, no matter how good, could revive the SDLP’s fortunes. Certainly not either McDonnell or Ritchie.

    I’m just making the point that Ritchie (while she can be annoying) has always been consistent and showed great strength of character over the UDA linked community group funding.

    I know that many Nationalists just don’t like McDonnell because of his obvious arrogance. In conjunction with the (as I have said) well founded belief that he’s more interested in himself than representing his voters, I think electing him would be a PR disaster for the SDLP.

    IMO Ritchie is the least worst option.

    However, either way, they’re just re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

  • Mick Fealty


    If it is true that the SDLP is dying off, something will almost certainly grow in its place. PR-STV will almost dictate that.

    The question for me is can they back the van up the footpath and get back on the main road, or do they leave it there and hitch a ride with another.

    Or is that the wrong allegory, and are they just stranded on a desert island, far from the main shipping lanes?

  • slug


    On the other hand, he might differentiate the SDLP from Sinn Féin. It sounds like he would not follow the rather failed path (for the SDLP) that the SDLP have taken up to now in which they lack boldness to act differently from Sinn Féin.

    In particular, pan nationalism (what is left of it) might be dispatched, in the same way as UCUNF are doing with unionist cooperation, which seems to be generating some energy around them.

    Of course for some nationalists that would be a negative, for others it might not be. There should be a battle of ideas in nationalism; currently there is not.

    If anything SDLP seem too nice and too bland (a bit like Alliance). Abrasiveness and arrogance do not seem to be too much of a handicap in politics (look at Alex Salmond, Ian Paisley, or Gerry Adams).

  • Downpatrick Resident

    I feel that this battle will only damage the SDLP. McDonnell hasn’t got the personality to be leader while Ritchie is too ackward in her presentation. Eddie McGrady really needed to stand down. In South Down and in particular Downpatrick people no longer have time or respect for McGrady. The only time he is spotted is when in front of a camera. What about his expenses too? no mention on his website about it. Not really transparent is it??

  • Billy


    It’s only my opinion that the SDLP is “dying off”. However, I think it’s based on sound evidence.

    Given SF’s difficulties over P&J etc, the SDLP will never have a better chance to score some points.

    However, they haven’t done so, at best they’ve stood still.

    I saw a program (The Politics Show I think) a few months ago about how the SDLP was recruiting a lot of young people and was becoming resurgent. Frankly, since then I have seen nothing to back this up – it’s always the same old tired faces – Durkan, McDonnell, McGrady, Ritchie, McGuinness with the same tired old message.

    I agree with you that something will emerge to replace the SDLP and challenge SF within the Nationalist community. Possibly some sort of FF merger i.e. takeover of the SDLP.

    However, to use your allagory, I think they should leave the van on the footpath – along with a lot of the occupants.

    Whatever replaces the SDLP will require fresh thinking and fresh ideas from young people with drive and enthusiasm.

    Given the average age of SDLP representatives, their lack of vision and drive, I think that very few of their current “leaders” will be prominent in any new movement and, frankly, that’s probably for the best.

  • Expenses111


    Last week I called McDonnell is an ignoramus and you removed it. On Liam Clarke’s article he said –
    “The bruiser part has a downside, however. McDonnell, known as Big Al, has an outgoing personality and can charm voters. But within the party he can be brusque with subordinates and frank to the point of rudeness.”

    Is it not a bit 2 faced to remove my comment yet let this link stand??

  • J Kelly

    Quote of the week by seamas mallon when asked do any of the sdlp leadership candidates have what it takes to bring the last to to what it once was “they are two very decent people, two very decent people” quote may not be exact but the sentiment is right. Enough said.

  • John O’Connell


    In conjunction with the (as I have said) well founded belief that he’s more interested in himself than representing his voters,

    Sinn Fein used to say this about John Hume all the time. Remember Johh Hume was the “Glory hunter”. That was before he brought Sinn fein in from the cold – to stop the killing, not to allow them to walk all over the SDLP.

  • Expenses111

    John O’Connell

    Why don’t you stand? According to some your a messiah!!! I think your deluded.

  • Northern Friend

    Billy: “These were the people that McDonnell did a deal with ”

    Are you ‘aving a laugh Billy? Or maybe you’ve been out of the country for a while and missed who’s running NI?

    if the Belfast City Council thing has any relevance at all for this race, surely it’s because it points out that McDonnell isn’t afraid to take a risk, is prepared to go against the grain, and wants to win?

    I had a good conversation with a SF organiser on Friday. A nice guy who I like and who’s view I largely trust. He is clear that he would prefer Margaret to take the leadership. ‘Why’ I asked. ‘It’ll finish you’ he laughed.

    This is not offered as a reason to support McDonnell – just a refelction on what at least one person outside the SDLP is thinking.

  • John O’Connell

    Exes 111

    According to some your a messiah!!!

    It seems that my time is near.

    I think your deluded.

    Deluded about being the Messiah? Well, I can only point you to the conceptual framework for my return, The Book of Revelation Revealed: The Proof that God exists. But you know the Jews were divided about Jesus and it seems that some will never believe.

    Why don’t you stand?

    It’s only a non-believer who thinks he has a choice about what I have to say.

  • DerTer

    Mick, you didn’t quote the most astute piece of Liam Clarke’s analysis; this is it:
    “When Hume retired in 2000, he left the SDLP in apparently good order. But there was a cuckoo in the nest in the shape of Sinn Fein, which Hume had spent years coaxing away from violence and into the political mainstream. In the process he became closely identified with Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, in what was referred to as “the Hume/Adams process”. As a result, the taboo against SDLP voters switching to Sinn Fein was eroded and, as soon as Hume retired, Adams started presenting himself as the SDLP leader’s real successor…”
    Fascinating, isn’t it, in light of the rest of what Clarke has to say, that Eddie McGrady was one of those who were appalled at Hume’s liaison with the devil. What makes all this even harder to take is that Clarke is actually wrong in one respect, in giving John some credit for having coaxed SF from violence. Hume was conned into believing that the initiative was his, when in truth the whole thing was a device by SF, contrived through the good offices of Gerry Reynolds, to permit it respectably to engage (with deniability) in what it was really frantic to engage in: a process of ending a manifestly disastrous campaign of violence, but rescuing some political advantage from it. Liam Clarke was thus on the button as regards that last bit.

  • John O’Connell


    Hume was conned into believing that the initiative was his,

    It was never Hume’s initiative. It was from the beginning in 1987 a case that Gerry Adams wanted to talk with Hume about ending the IRA campaign. It was ultimately Adams initiative and Hume would have known that Adams wanted to end the campaign but that others were prepared to fight on indefinitely. Hume was not conned.

    What got Adams to the point where he wanted to talk was an experience I had in Galway in 1986 where I worked out on my numeric alphabet Gerry Adams name at 666, months before he came looking for Hume. This went to Adams through SF members in Galway and to Hume, through Mark Durkan whom I told. John Hume arrived in Galway on my invitation that November, sending a chill to Gerry Adams.

    The rest is history. Within months talks were begun through Fr Alex Reid, not Fr Gerry Reynolds, who may have been involved, and the spiritual advisors of the republican movement advised Gerry that the 666 thing meant that he had to stop the violence.

    Well, that is how I see that things developed. The truth is often stranger than fiction. Often when you’re doing wrong and you think you’re poure and righteous with a greater conscience than anybody else, a revelation like mine can really shake you.

  • Billy

    Northern Friend

    The relevance of Belfast City Council is that is shows up McDonnell for what he is. This nonsense about him being a “winner” is BS.

    The fact is that, at a time when the council was blatently discriminating against Catholics/Nationalists, McDonnell went against the wishes of his own party to satisfy his own ego.

    As I said, I believe that he was actually disciplined by his own party unless someone can prove otherwise.

    I thought that collective responsibility was a big thing in politics and abiding by your party’s collective decisions.

    What message does it send out to people if you elect a “leader” who is known for being more interested in his own ego trip (and is prepared to cross his own colleagues to do so) than representing the people in his consistuency.


    I don’t care what SF said about John Hume. I’m not a SF supporter. Personally, I’m a big fan of John Hume.

    Having lived around the world, London, New York, Australia – I can say that John Hume is well respected as a honourable statesman. Sure he took risks but they were to further the peace process.

    Frankly, any attempt to compare John Hume with McDonnell is laughable. McDonnell is a nothing compared to John Hume.

    I know many Nationalists\Catholics who don’t vote SDLP but still have a great respect for John Hume and Seamus Mallon. No such feelings exist for McDonnell who is largely viewed as arrogant and self-serving.

    Funny how the SDLP vote has nosedived since John Hume and Seamus Mallon retired – does that educate you at all?

    The risks that John Hume took were for peace and often exposed him to abuse and ridicule from all sides.

    McDonnell looks after himself as the Deputy Mayor incident shows.

    I don’t live in NI any more and I have no axe to grind. I just call it as I see it.

    There is a need for a party to fight Sinn Fein in the Nationalist community. HOwever, IMO, the SDLP are a busted flush – Durkan was a rubbish leader and, now he’s going, the 2 contenders to replace him are middle-aged and associated strongly with the same years of SDLP decline.

    Where are the young people with fresh ideas and enthusiasm? – I sure as hell don’t see them.

    It will be very difficult if not impossible to save the SDLP – and it will certainly take people of a higher calibre than those on offer.

    I hope that there is a FF takeover (dressed up as a merger) of the SDLP. This might just give the Nationalist people a genuine alternative to SF with talented people who may be able to achieve something.

    I’m afraid that the current middle-aged SDLP candidates with their associated baggage don’t offer anything much.

  • Northern Friend

    Billy: “I have no axe to grind”

    I don’t believe you. Your entire analysis of McDonnell’s ability appears to be based on him going for and getting the Deputy Mayor position in Belfast. Were you a candidate maybe?

    I do believe you when you say you don’t live here anymore – guff about the benefits of abstentionism in a ‘forum blatently discriminating against catholics’ has long ago been flushed where it belongs.

    The fact that McDonnell went against his party when he thought that they were doing the wrong thing tells me that he knows his own mind and isn’t afraid of controversy if it advances the nationalist position. Precisely what the SDLP needs right now if you ask me.

  • Reiker

    Big question is whether the candidates will deliver what the party wants as opposed to what the party needs.

    The winner could preside over a more dysfunctional party with a reduced base due to disillusionment about whomever wins.

    Other runners might help, for example:
    McGlone – a good outside bet and a good organiser like McDonnell, but with less push.
    Maginness – a heavyweight with a good recent Euro election behind him, but lacks the charisma to be a leader.
    Attwood – probably the least trusted among all the MLAs, although a good analytical brain, but serious doubts about his ability to lead from the front rather than the back seat.
    Dallat – once had ideas and has since run out of them
    The rest – willing to be lead, but will they be willing to retain the status quo? Which by the way is a trend of diminishing returns. Is that what the SDLP need?

    I think McDonnell still has a significant edge over Ritchie in all departments except gender and not being a Durkan supporter, but are they any reason not to pick the best person for the job?

  • Billy

    Northern Friend

    I am not and never have been involved in NI politics. Frankly, you can believe what you like.

    As to your analysis of Belfast City Council – laughable!

    Any analysis of the records will show that in the early to mid 80s – SF and individuals took legal action against the council for not allocating positions to Catholics/Nationalists to which they were fully entitled. BCC lost the majority of these cases and had to pay costs – of course all their legal fees etc were paid out of taxpayers money.

    The attitude of Unionist council members to Alex Maskey is also well documented. Funny how these good people who were so disgusted by terrorism had no problem electing Smyth of the PUP/UVF and McCoubrey of the UDP/UDA as Deputy mayors.

    This is all historical fact. If you think that you can disprove it – good luck with that.

    In the meantime, you’re entitled to your opinion. However, don’t expect anyone who has an open mind and is genuinely interested in facts to agree with you.

  • Northern Friend

    I don’t disagree with anything you say about the bad old days of city council. It was demonstrably full of bigots.

    I just disagree that abstention was ever the way to deal with it. Alasdair MCDonnell got stuck in, took the fight into the bear pit and proved that a nationalist holding one of the top jobs in Belfast wasn’t the end of the world.

    Those of us of a certain vintage remember McDonnell getting the post as an early beginning of a new tone in the North.

    If you prefer to stay bitter about the prods, good luck to you, but please don’t pretend that it has any relevance to the SDLP leadership election.

  • Reiker

    Would have to agree with Northern Friend. If McDonnell hadn’t have shown the way, it would have taken a lot longer to make the change. He took a brave step and had the courage and the vision to see that it was the best and quickest way to break down the Unionists’ intransigence towards nationalists. It speeded up the sharing of power significantly and opened the way for Maginness as the first Nationalist Lord Mayor. Who would ever have believed we could have had a Sinn Fein Lord Mayor. Perhaps what we should be focusing on is getting another – soon.

    To get back to the leadership issue, so many threads seem fixated on age. Any other profession we would be shouting about ageism. Surely any position at any level should be about the best person at the time to do the job in hand, not settle for 2nd or 3rd best because someone is considered too old and therefore capability challenged.

    What age is Alex Ferguson?

  • Billy

    Northern Friend

    I’m not bitter about the Prods as you put it. I agree that we’ve all moved on. However, your earlier posts implied that you were denying the bigotry that existed in BCC in the 80’s.

    However, we now seem to agree on that.

    Frankly, even if you set BCC to one side, I don’t think that the election of either McDonnell or Ritchie will make a big difference in the decline of the SDLP. I’m not ageist – but it’s not as if the SDLP have a few elder statesmen and a budding youth wing.

    The youngest of their “heavy hitters” is Durkan – a disastrous leader who is now standing down.

    All the other “big names” are middle-aged at least and closely linked with the decline of the SDLP over the last 8 years or so.

    I’m not a SF supporter nor am I anti SDLP – I was an SDLP supporter when I lived in NI and a major fan of John Hume and Seamus Mallon.

    Frankly, I’m sorry to see the SDLP in their current state – it’s also bad for the Nationalist people as a credible alternative to Sinn Fein is required.

    I just don’t see Ritchie, McDonnell or anyone else bringing Nationalist voters back to the SDLP in any numbers. They’ll either continue to vote for SF (as the best of a bad bunch) or even worse – not vote at all.

    I honestly think that the best thing would be a “merger” with Fianna Fail which would bring in some fresh and younger people and more importantly
    fresh thinking.

    I just don’t see that the SDLP currently have any young people at all and no fresh thinking. I would be happy to be proved wrong but I doubt it.

  • Reiker

    Merger might be the way forward, but there is a large rump of Irish labour nestled in a number of key positions within the SDLP so a merger with FF would split the party. Perhaps that is needed to help it, though not at this point. What it needs first is to regain its confidence and standing. It can’t do that standing still and electing the same old faces back to cushion the fall towards oblivion.

    I am still of an opinion that people seem to think that younger people have the edge when it comes to leadership, ideas, commitment, energy, etc. One has only to look at the SDLP Youth to blow that argument out of the water, and before anyone else jumps in about it being a malady of the SDLP, just look at the other political parties and the embarrassment many of their young members are. SF alone are the best organised, but they aren’t great on free thinking.

    As I said earlier. The best person for the job should be elected as their party leader, not someone who will just continue the Durkan ways – Some people believe that Ritchie would be a puppet of Durkan. Whilst I don’t subscribe to this viewpoint, as she is a fairly independent thinker, nevertheless there will be markers to call in if she gets it over McDonnell. She hasn’t had much experience fighting her way through to get to the top as McDonnell has had, which is probably why he has a number of internal enemies.

    Ritchie is a good minister, but don’t think she is the right leader at this time. Succession planning may help her get the experience to ultimately get there.

  • John O’Connell

    I know many Nationalists\Catholics who don’t vote SDLP but still have a great respect for John Hume and Seamus Mallon. No such feelings exist for McDonnell who is largely viewed as arrogant and self-serving.

    I don’t think you’re getting the message, Billy.
    John Hume was given a lot of stick by Sinn Fein and republicans in general before he sacrificed the party for peace. McDonnell is getting that stick from you now, whether you voted SDLP or not.

    I suspect your support for Hume and Mallon is based on them having sold the pass to Sinn Fein and I think you fear McDonnell won’t allow this to happen because he’ll act in his own interests.

    That’s alright by me if he does if it avoids the stupidity of damaging the party by trying to be martyrs for our society.

  • eric

    “Merger might be the way forward, but there is a large rump of Irish labour nestled in a number of key positions within the SDLP so a merger with FF would split the party. Perhaps that is needed to help it, though not at this point. What it needs first is to regain its confidence and standing. ”

    Perhaps such a split is not needed this side of the Westminster election, but the party that you outlined above is a forumla for inertia.

    A Fianna Fail/SDLP merger is not a runner for reasons of Fianna Fail theology about oaths in Westminster. That said the SDLP shorn of its Labour wing renamed and positioned on a clearer middle/aspirant class agenda might well reach out to disaffected stay at home voters – alliance with Fianna Fail could be an optional extra.

    At the same time a Northern section of the Irish Labour Party linked to British Labour in the same way as the UUP is linked to the Tories might well get at left leaning a cross community niche that is poorly served at present.

    The present day SDLP does not excite the stay at home nationalist or the left leaning cross community vote. When you try to please everyone – you please no one etc…

    The above may well not be the type of the surgery the SDLP needs – however the patient is dying and the SDLP does require very, very radical surgery.